Gary James' Interview With Steve Ambrose Of
The Original Rhondels
Their records have topped the charts in Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Mexico and Spain. They had three U.S. Top 40 hits, "May I", "I've Been Hurt" and "What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am"). Hailing from Virginia Beach, Virginia, we spoke with Steve Ambrose of The Original Rhondels.
Q - Steve, you've got a Masters Degree and a Doctorate degree.
A - Yes, I do.
Q - You're one of the most educated musicians I've interviewed.
A - (laughs)
Q - How does having all that knowledge help you in The Original Rhondels?
A - Well, it does help a little bit with arranging charts especially lately we've done some things with concert orchestras. My experience and my training gives me a little better leg up on arranging violas and oboes and bassoons. That sort of thing. But other than that, it's neither here nor there.
Q - The Original Rhondels were formed in what year?
A - I guess the best way to look at it is how The Rhondels developed over the years. It was probably about 1960 or '61 when the band formed that had a resemblance to the band that made the hits in the late '60s. So I'd say probably in the early '60s, '61, '62 they started adding horns and choreography and they became the house band at one of the big dance halls here in Virginia Beach and became very popular in the concert circuit throughout Virginia and through Georgia. Then in '69 when the had their big hit, "May I", they started traveling, Madison Square Garden, all around the country. The hits were big in South America, Mexico. Number one in those places. When they were the house band at the Peppermint, which was probably from '65 through '70, something like that, there were always two bands. It was an hour on, hour off. The music really never stopped. I was always in the other band because at that point they were traveling and I was in college. It wouldn't have worked out. But I knew all the guys. I was just as excited as they were when the hits got big. To make a long story short, they went their way and I had a career in music education. Then when I retired about fifteen years ago, well, actually they called me before I retired knowing that I was going to. I joined right back up and I've been with 'em ever since.
Q - The Original Rhondels were called Bill Deal And The Rhondels?
A - That's correct.
Q - You saw them when Bill was in the group?
A - Oh, absolutely. Played on stage with them. I knew the guys. We all grew up in Virginia Beach. I can remember the first little band I joined when I was fifteen, they spoke in awe of The Rhondels. So, from the very first gig I played, The Rhondels were the band after which everybody modeled themselves.
Q - What was the big drawing card for The Rhondels? Was it the music? Was there some kind of show that was being put on?
A - All of the above. They had a rather unique sound. A very driving sound. They played a lot of covers, but they always put their own spin on those covers and then the strong horn section, the strong vocals and back vocals and the choreography, those were all trademarks. They did that better than anyone.
Q - Was the band drawing a lot of college kids?
A - Well no, not really. It was a vacation destination. The club where the band really gelled was The Peppermint Beach Club. That club sat right on the ocean front, no more than a hundred yards off the water. The club owner capitalized on that. On the weekend we had what he called jam sessions, running from one in the afternoon to one in the morning. As I mentioned, there was always two bands. The bands played an hour on, an hour off. Truly the music never stopped. You might remember the tune called "The Horse", a strong horn tune back in the mid-'60s, late '60s. Anyway, it was a horn feature. So both bands used that tune to change stage. So, say we were playing and it was two minutes before the hour when the band changed, we'd start "The Horse" and the other band would hear it and grump and gripe and then they'd grab their horns and instruments and come to the stage. There was a spot we were playing and then we stand right on stage with us, but not yet play. There's a drum break in the song and so we'd all stop playing. Our drummer would play the drum break. They would give each other the eye and the other drummer would pick up the drum break and at that point we left the stage and their drummer brought them into the horn riff again and they took over for the next sixty minutes. And it went on like that from 1 P.M. to 1 A.M. every Saturday and Sunday.
Q - That must have been some big stage!
A - It was cozy. It was adequate, but the dance floor was large. The hall itself was a very good size and it was all about the dancing and the beer and the bands and the music and the beach. There were some good times.
Q - I noticed when the band started it was Bill Deal And The Rhondels. Did it then become Bill Deal's Rhondels?
A - It was Bill Deal And The Rhondels for many, many years. Bill and the band were traveling throughout the '70s and into the '80s. As the music started to change, Bill, William decided he was done with playing. So he sold the name of the band, Rhondels, to one of the guys in the band with the understanding that if William decided to come back that he would come back as Bill Deal's Original Rhondels. Fast forward about eight or ten years, sure enough, William decided he wanted to play again. So he reformed a band called Bill Deal's Original Rhondels, using some of the original Rhondels. Then when William died, which was thirteen, fourteen years ago (December 10th, 2003), his wife asked us to continue the legacy of the band, which we were proud and happy to do. We dropped the name Bill Deal and just kept The Original Rhondels. Unfortunately, the band to which William sold The Rhondels is still somewhat playing in the area, so occasionally there's a little bit of confusion with someone who may not know the difference and they'll find the band on say Facebook or the internet and hire them.
Q - So, two Rhondels are going around Virginia Beach.
A - Yeah.
Q - Not good for the nightclubs. Not good for the public.
A - We're two different bands both visually and musically.
Q - When The Rhondels had those three hit records, did they chart on Billboard?
A - They did.
Q - What did that do for the group? Did they go out as a headliner?
A - Oh, yes. The first hit came in '69. That was "May I" (#39). Then in '70 it was "I've Been Hurt" (#35)and then in '71 it was "What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am" (#23). Those were the three big Billboard charting hits. There were two or three others that were regional hits but didn't make the charts nationally. With the advent of those three national, or actually international hits, the band did quite a bit of traveling as headliners and as openers. We opened in Madison Square Garden for a couple of acts. Even in the past five or ten years we have opened for The Beach Boys. We've opened for Johnny Maestro, The Temptations, what's left of The Classics IV. Groups like that. It's almost like an "oldies" show to borrow a cliche. But it's still fun and it's kind of interesting to see how some of the other bands have fared over the years.
Q - What year did you become a member of The Rhondels?
A - 2003.
Q - Since the band is called The Original Rhondels, are there any original members in the group?
A - Yes. Our two trumpet players played on the hits. The man who does our sound, our sound tech was the bass players in the original band, Don Quisenberry. Interestingly enough, Don's son, Lee, now sings and plays keys with us. Everybody else in the band has played with The Rhondels somewhere throughout the years, maybe not in the '69 to '76 kind of time frame, but on and off throughout the years after that. Again, so they all worked with William in various kind of permutations of how the band came to be. It wasn't until William died thirteen years ago that the band was actually without him. Although we only have the four guys from the '60s band, the rest of us have all had a part of it somewhere along the line in addition to what we're doing now.
Q - How often does this band perform and where do you perform?
A - Well, we do quite a bit of the outdoor festival sort of thing. Of course that means we do very little in the first quarter of the year. But kind of an aside on that, the past year or two we discovered a new audience down in Florida, so we have gone to Florida three times this Winter (2017). We have two more scheduled and we are hoping, envisioning that maybe we might become snowbirds just as so many of the people who are our audience have become. Those snowbirds who now live in Florida, many of them, most of them in fact are not native to Florida. They came from this area (Virginia Beach) or somewhere on the eastern seaboard and those people remember Bill Deal And The Original Rhondels. And so when we go down there the name is a draw there as well. In addition to the outdoor venues we do, oh, probably from March to late October we now have a different set of venues down in Florida with a different kind of audience. We do some traveling in addition to the Florida thing, throughout the Carolinas, Georgia, New Jersey, the D.C. area. So I guess it's still pretty much along the eastern seaboard, which is really where the term 'beach music' is still recognized.